Here's how the Cards got back in the race

September 17th, 2021

After losing to the Braves on Aug. 5, the Cardinals were eight games out in the race for the second National League Wild Card spot and had just a 1.5% chance of reaching the postseason, according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds. Six weeks later, St. Louis’ odds are up to 41.5% and the Redbirds are the favorites to win the second NL Wild Card.

With their three-game sweep of the Mets at Citi Field the past three days, the Cardinals have won five straight and are 23-14 dating back to Aug. 6.

Here’s how St. Louis has been able to turn its season around and get back in the postseason race.

1) has turned back the clock

is the Cardinals’ ace, but injuries have limited him to all of three starts since the end of May. Stepping up to fill the void has been Wainwright, who turned 40 on Aug. 30 and is in his 16th MLB season.

Flaherty went on the injured list with a strained oblique on June 1. Since then, Wainwright has gone 13-3 with a 2.27 ERA over 130 2/3 innings spanning 19 starts, including two complete games. The Cardinals have gone 15-4 in those starts.

He’s been especially impressive over his past 11 starts, notching a 1.72 ERA and averaging seven innings per outing. St. Louis lost just one of those 11 games.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Wainwright, who was one of the game’s best pitchers from 2009-14, a span in which he averaged 18 wins and 226 innings per year (excluding 2011, which he missed following Tommy John surgery) while posting a 2.83 ERA (135 ERA+).

However, that doesn’t make his run any less surprising. Even when factoring in his 3.15 ERA during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the veteran right-hander entered this year with a 4.43 mark (93 ERA+) since the beginning of ‘16, so it appeared his days as an ace were well in the past.

2) is hitting like an MVP

Wainwright's outstanding stretch on the mound has coincided with a similar resurgence at the plate for St. Louis' first baseman.

In his third season with the Cards, Goldschmidt had a .247/.315/.405 slash line with 11 homers over his first 78 games, though a look below the surface reveals the veteran was more unlucky than anything else.

Through June 29, Goldschmidt was tied with the Astros’ for the most outs (68) on hard-hit balls (95+ exit velocity) in MLB. The 104-point gap between his .405 slugging percentage and .509 expected SLG -- based on quality of contact and strikeouts -- was the largest number in the Majors as well (min. 200 plate appearances).

Since June 30, Goldschmidt’s xSLG is .590. His actual slugging percentage in that span? .596.

Going back to Aug. 6, when the Cardinals really ramped up their postseason push, Goldschmidt has hit .343 with nine homers, 12 doubles, 27 RBIs and a 1.070 OPS in 36 games.

Goldschmidt’s counterpart across the diamond, third baseman , also has done his part to spark St. Louis’ turnaround. While Arenado’s slash stats aren’t as impressive as Goldschmidt’s, the third baseman has produced 11 homers and 33 RBIs since Aug. 6. Five of his homers in that span have either tied the game or put the Cardinals into the lead.

3) continues to shine

Somewhat quietly, O’Neill has been one of the best all-around players in the Majors this season, as evidenced by his percentile ranks in these key categories.

Hard-hit rate: 96th percentile
Barrel rate: 95th
xSLG: 95th
Sprint speed: 98th
Outs above average: 81st

The 26-year-old left fielder has rebounded from his worst month of the season (.669 OPS in July) with two of his best, recording a .917 OPS in August and starting off September with a 1.054 OPS across 15 games.

O’Neill has five homers this month, including a pair of decisive blasts -- one in the fifth and one in the eighth -- against the Dodgers on Sept. 8 and Sept. 9, and a go-ahead shot in the eighth inning against the Mets on Tuesday.

4) Their defense is a difference-maker

Of course you know all about the defensive prowess of Arenado and catcher , who have combined for 17 Gold Glove Awards, but they are far from the only defensive studs on the Cardinals’ roster.

St. Louis leads the Majors with 41 outs above average, and Arenado, Goldschmidt, O’Neill, second baseman and center fielder all rank among the OAA leaders at their positions. , who has taken over for as the Cardinals’ starting shortstop, also has proven to be an above-average fielder.

The 11-4 final score Wednesday against the Mets suggests the game was a blowout, but it would have been a lot closer if right fielder hadn't robbed of a three-run homer just a few plays after entering the game on a double switch in the bottom of the seventh inning. Alonso's blast would have trimmed the Cards' lead to one if it went over the fence.

The Cardinals’ pitching staff doesn’t miss many bats, with the 28th-highest strikeout rate (20.2%) in MLB, so the team's defense is incredibly important to its success.

No pitcher in the big leagues has benefited more from his defense than Wainwright this season. The Cardinals have produced 22 OAA behind him, the most in the Majors for any hurler by far. The Mariners’ is second at 10 OAA. Wainwright’s 33-point gap between his actual BA allowed and his xBA is tied for the 10th largest among qualifiers.

St. Louis’ defense has even helped turn veteran left-handers and into serviceable starters since the Cards acquired both at the Trade Deadline.

With Twins: 6.77 ERA, 5.41 FIP, .306 BA, .281 xBA
With Cardinals: 4.08 ERA, 5.18 FIP, .243 BA, .260 xBA

With Nationals: 5.02 ERA, 5.42 FIP, .297 BA, .266 xBA
With Cardinals: 4.14 ERA, 5.39 FIP, .268 BA, .272 xBA

5) and have shored up their bullpen

García and McFarland were both signed by the Cardinals in July after being released by the Yankees and Nationals, respectively. The two have quickly become trusted members of St. Louis’ relief corps, bolstering a bullpen that was shaky for much of the season.

After allowing six runs and getting three outs in his first three appearances with the Cardinals, García has put together 22 straight scoreless appearances while notching nine holds in that stretch. McFarland, meanwhile, has held his opponent scoreless in 21 of his past 22 appearances while also recording nine holds.

Since Aug. 6, the Cardinals have the third-best bullpen ERA (3.06) in MLB. Before that, they ranked 19th with a 4.44 ERA.

6) Their competition has faded

While the Cards certainly have done a lot to help themselves, they’ve also been aided by the struggles of some of their chief competitors.

Each of the four clubs directly behind them in the NL Wild Card standings have posted sub-.500 records since Aug. 6, enabling the Cards to make up a ton of ground in six weeks.

Record since Aug. 6
Cardinals: 23-14
Padres: 13-22
Reds: 17-20
Phillies: 17-19
Mets: 15-23

St. Louis now controls its own destiny, though this race is far from over. The Cardinals have a huge series coming up at Busch Stadium against the Padres, who trail St. Louis by just one game. After that, seven of their final 14 games are against the NL Central-leading Brewers, who have won three of their four series against the Cards this season. St. Louis' other seven games are against the Cubs, who will surely be looking to spoil their rival's postseason chances.